This Pandemic Calls Us To Acts Of Kindness
Recalling acts of kindness he has experienced in precarious situations. FR DICK O’RIORDAN suggests that the suffering created by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown call all of us to acts of kindness.
In 1974 the isiXhosa- and SeSotho-speaking rural districts in South Africa “received” independence from the South African government. The purpose of these homelands/reserves was in the grand plan of apartheid: to disenfranchise millions of black South Africans of their citizenship of South Africa.
Apartheid government minister Dr Piet Koornhof had observed that the word “apartheid” had become discredited. A more accurate term, he said, would be “parallel pluralisms”, absurdly claiming that the homelands were just like the Swiss cantons!
I came to live in the Transkei “canton”, styled an “independent republic” in 1980.
One day, early in January 1986, two security police came to visit me at Zingisa minor seminary in Mthatha (then still known as Umtata). In silence they handed me a sheet of paper.
It read: “In terms of the Aliens Act of 1974 of the Republic of Transkei you are ordered to leave this Republic immediately, by the nearest border post.”
It was a deportation order. Ah yes, they had not come to answer questions!
Having searched my office for hours, one of them found a booklet by the president of Tanzania, Julius Kambarage Mwalimu Nyerere, entitled African Socialism. He shouted out to me: “Do you not know that in Transkei we are antisocial?” Biting my lip, I could only reply: “You bet you are, sir.”
I felt like a householder in the presence of two thieves who had broken into my house and were now busy ransacking it. I felt very nervous, afraid they could do anything they liked to me. I was desperate to tell somebody what was happening to me.
I was under arrest
They told me that I was under arrest—which, I felt, was indeed a little antisocial. Later in the afternoon they took me to Wellington prison in Mthatha. I was allowed to bring a bible and a blanket.
I do remember their kindness on the way when they stopped at a café to allow me to get some chocolate. I shared it with them.
As we walked through the prison gates in silence, I felt like a lamb being led to the slaughter. The noisy chattering in the distance went silent as we passed by the “criminal” section. One of them shouted out to me: “Welcome broer, you are the only umlungu in Wellington,” using the isiXhosa word for “white person”.
I was locked up in the special section with the ANC and PAC prisoners. I got more welcomes from my neighbours. One of them named Joe recognised me, as he had been a student at Zingisa. “Don’t worry, Father, we will look after you.” Such kind words. I felt a great relief. To think that some people called them “terrorists”.
As it was after 16:30, it was time for lockup in our cells for the night. It was lockup and lock-down.
But this is when Joe came alive. At antisocial distance he would lead us in singing our church hymns with great fervour. After this they would sing some freedom songs with even greater gusto.
I remember one of them, “Uphi uSlovo? uSlov ‘usehlathin’ Bafana, wenzani na? uyaqeqesw’ amajoni”. It means, “Where is Slovo? Slovo is in the bush, young men. What’s he doing there? He is training the soldiers”.
These informal sessions would end with prayers. Then they would ask me to give them a blessing. This blessing was not in the book but I was learning. They lifted my spirits during detention.
We were given dry mielepap for breakfast each morning. One of my fellow detainees would negotiate milk powder and sugar for me from the other section.
During the day Joe would arrive back with a transistor radio so we could keep in touch with the news, especially from Capital Radio based in Port St Johns.
Our one-hour daily exercise ended up in the courtyard with Joe and company updating the wardens on the struggle.
All the while I lived with that gnawing tension of not knowing what was going to happen to me.
My thanks to Fr Cas Paulsen CMM and Fr Winfried Egler CMM, who came to plead for me with the security police.
My thanks to Nomonde Matiso who came to “buy a hymnbook” after the police had arrived.
My thanks to Phumelele Twazi who happened to phone me as the police were searching my office. He spread the word.
My thanks to Cardinal Owen McCann who came from Cape Town to plead for me with the Transkei authorities. They would allow him only to send me a letter in the prison.
My thanks to the students who sang songs as I left Zingisa.
My thanks to Petrus Mehlwana, Br Mario Colussi and the Brothers, who kept the show on the road.
My thanks to Fr Michael Riedener CMM, the prison chaplain, for a brief visit and a bag of sweets.
My thanks to the Dominican Sisters Carmel Ford and Kathleen Keary, who came to the prison but were not allowed to see me. My thanks to the warden who gave me the message. It was inspiring to know I was not alone.
My thanks to my priest friends from Port Elizabeth who came to see me, and then saw me off at Mthatha airport.
My Covid-19 isolation
I was reflecting on this prison experience a few weeks ago. I had tested positive for Covid-19 and went into isolation for three weeks. It was a great shock. I lived in continuous tension not knowing what was going to happen to me and when.
The kind nursing carers and Sisters at Nazareth House in Cape Town looked after me well. And I had plenty time to reflect.
I thought of the kindness of the two security police and the chocolate. I had the warm feeling of the love and care of Joe and his companions in prison. I had never met them before, and I have never met them since. But their kindness touched my spirit.
My thanks for the time of isolation. It helped me realise that we always need the help and kindness of others.
My thanks to the catering staff at Nazareth House who have come every day since March to cook and care for us. There is a poster on the grounds, “Heroes Are Working Here”.
My thanks to the three carers and the Nazareth nursing Sister Gladys who cared for us.
My thanks for the privilege and joy of celebrating the Eucharist, even if it is alone.
My thanks to all the friends and priests and parishioners who prayed for us. They phoned us, sent us messages, and lifted us up with their love.
My thanks to my archdiocese for arranging that we would be well cared for.
Now: “What return can I make to the Lord for all I have received?” Please read on.
Acts of kindness
On May 26, Bishop Sylvester David made an appeal to the priests and deacons of the archdiocese of Cape Town, which he serves as its auxiliary bishop. He wrote: “Justice informs us that every human being has a right to food. Our churches are closed, yes! Our feeding of the poor is a major outreach at this time.”
Through the kindness of many people the archdiocese, and the hard work of our priests and deacons, food has been brought to the hungry. “Give them something to eat yourselves” (Matthew 14).
I know an Italian lady who with food donations prepares delicious Italian meals (“as if Pope Francis himself was coming for dinner”). Every week she brings those meals to “my friends” who live on the streets. What an inspiring example to us all.
Fr Kizito Gugah – Works of Charity
One of our priests, Fr Kizito Gugah, parish priest of St Timothy’s church in Tafelsig, Mitchells Plain, is also deeply involved in this work of charity.
He serves not only in Tafelsig, Fr Gugah is also chaplain to the 19 Malawian communities scattered around the Cape. Most of them have no “official” residence papers and so do not qualify for government help, and most have no work.
He serves, among others, Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay, Samora in Mitchells Plain, Lwandle in Somerset West, Masiphumelele in Kommetjie, Joe Slovo in Milnerton, Atlantis, Dunoon in Table View, Zwelihle in Hermanus and nearby Stanford, and so on, ministering to their needs. Food is their greatest need now.
Bishop Sylvester said: “This [feeding the hungry] is the most viable form of ministry right now.” Jesus said: “I was hungry and you gave me food” (Matthew 25:35)..
I certainly did not expect it, but Joe and his companions ministered to me in my time of great need, both materially and spiritually.
You may be touched to reach out and help those who are in greatest need during this pandemic.
We may not realise it, though many are suffering and many more are hungry, there are also reports that some among us are starving.
“They all ate as much as they wanted…” (Matthew 14).
Fr Dick O’Riordan is a retired priest of the archdiocese of Cape Town.
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